The following is an open reply to the Massachusetts Trial Court’s call for comments regarding its Proposed Uniform Rules on Public Access to Court Records. It is the joint comment of multiple organizations and individuals. CPCS is a signatory, and this post is meant to provide some context explaining why. For a complete list of signatories, visit http://ma-court-comment.github.io/
Given that the adoption of a common data standard for the Massachusetts legal community offers the promise of increased efficiency, lower information sharing costs, and improved access to courts, we propose that the Massachusetts Trial Courts adopt a set of data standards to facilitate sharing information between the Trial Courts and other stakeholders, and that all data deemed publicly available be made accessible in a machine readable format consistent via an application programming interface (API) overseen by the courts. This would supersede the need for the Courts to create multiple, disparate portals for various stakeholders, as described in Rule 5. It would also simplify the procedures described in Rule 3 as the use cases envisioned could be conducted over the API.
The challenge: electronic access to Court data
External stakeholders, including the public, law enforcement, CPCS, and executive agencies (including the Department of Public Health and the Department of Mental Health) have unique data needs. Providing each of these stakeholders with their own information portal, its own secure electronic access, user interface, etc. is costly and time-consuming. Fortunately, the Courts need not bear this burden.
What it means to adopt data standards
Data standards allow parties to both read and write data in a way others can understand. Given a standard for court data, the Trial Court could implement a single access point for all parties seeking access to their data. This access point would operate as a place for computer programs to securely exchange standardized data, including everything from requests for court information to electronic filings. As the administrator of this access point, the Trial Court would maintain complete control over access based on whatever permissions it deemed appropriate, and could supply different data to different parties depending on need and confidentiality requirements.
This information exchange between computers does not require the development of a traditional user interface, which simplifies the sharing of data. The Trial Court would simply provide a platform upon which stakeholders could create their own tools to interact with Trial Court data. As a result, the development of a standard would make it easier for unique, custom portals to be developed, shared, and modified by different stakeholders meaning the Courts could be saved from this effort themselves.
Data standards provide interoperability; the ability of different systems to talk to each other. It is this rationale that drove the development of the National Information Exchange Model (NIEM), a data standard used to share information between federal and state agencies, including law enforcement agencies in MA.
Standards have been developed specifically with the legal community in mind, for example, Legal XML. Consequently, the adoption of MA specific standards need not start from scratch. Rather, MA stakeholders could learn from and build upon other’s work.
Successful examples of data standards
MassDOT: Sharing real-time transit data. MassDOT recognized that riders would benefit from the installation of digital signs that could share transit alerts and bus/train arrival. However, installing the displays had long been delayed as they required major capital investments and take years to roll out. In 2009, MassDOT began publishing transit data in a standard format (GTFS), and it invited developers to build tools based on this data. The MassDOT Developer’s Initiative, as it was called, led to the creation of dozens of transit apps and websites, products that were developed at no cost to MassDOT (aside from the cost of publishing their data). MassDOT was able to offload the cost of development, and improve service to its customers through this data sharing. This judicious use of resources was widely seen as an example of prudent resource allocation and best practice.
Open311: Open311 is an API standard used to help citizens report problems to local governments, and one can find implementations in Boston, San Francisco, the District of Columbia, Portland, and Los Angeles. By adopting the Open311 standard, cities make it possible for citizens to submit requests for services over apps the city did not have to fund. See Mayor Newsom Launches National Initiative to Open 311 Customer Service Centers to Developers.
The benefits of data standards
- Decentralized development of information portals – no need for the Trial Court to develop specific portals for different audiences.
- No change in security – continued ability to control and limit access to data.
- Decreased costs to the Trial Court and Commonwealth, because portals would be developed by interested outsiders, thus alleviating the need to hire contractors and/or devote existing human resources to develop tools other than the API.
- Increased cost savings through efficiencies gained from improved communication between the court and other parties.
- More rapid development of tools, since they would be developed by a large number of partners rather than straining the limited resources of the Trial Courts.
*With thanks to our data science maven, David Colarusso, for drafting the majority of this blog post.